I came across this week’s Discover challenge by The Daily Post themed on ‘a chance encounter’. I thought why not pen down a story. So, here it goes.
The rain had started again, although it was just drizzling. Staying clear of the wayward buses and crazy bikers, I cycled to the local café. The muddy water got wrapped around the rim of my front wheel and sprayed itself back onto my slippers, I tried hard to prevent myself from getting dirty but that meant slowing mu cycle to the peril of those behind me. And nobody even thinks of doing that in an Indian metro like Mumbai. The café was just a few hundred meters so why bother wearing the raincoat, I reasoned with myself.
As I halted at a traffic intersection, I noticed a woman strolling on the sidewalk. She must be returning from work, I could guess from her formal clothing, sky blue shirt, black trousers and a blazer.
My glasses were becoming translucent due to raindrops, which prevented a clear view of her face. But something about her bugged me, her odd sunglasses on a rainy evening, or her lack of an umbrella. I couldn’t figure it out.
The light turned green. As the drizzling intensified, I paced to the café dropping my short-lived reverie. I had a quick black coffee. Meanwhile, the rain became torrential and stormy. I sat back waiting for it to slow down. Suddenly, the thought of the lady walking unprotected in rain dawned on me. I put on my raincoat and cycled back, my eyes constantly scanning the sidewalk for her.
After crossing two intersections, I finally spotted her trying to shed herself under a tree protruding from inside of a residential compound. It was almost fifteen minutes since I had seen her. She was probably waiting for a taxi. I braked and stopped my bike near the tree.
I am not a very adventurous guy, so this was unusual for me. “What has gotten into me?” I asked himself as if these actions had become involuntary. The tree seemed to hardly help her in staying dry from the stormy rain. I cleared my glasses with the help of my sleeves to have a look at her if she was actually the lady I had seen a few minutes ago. I felt a little guilty for being so particular about this.
Her face was wet, drops of water running down her cheeks down her neck wetting her clothes, drops of water scattered all over her hair giving her head a glare. Her clothes, drenched in the rain, stuck to her. She seemed conscious of my stare, but tried to ignore me.
I saw her shivering while she stood there holding what looked like a damaged umbrella. I was hesitant to talk to her. She gave me a reluctant smile which eased me into initiating a conversation.
“Hi”, I said, “you seem completely drenched.”
“Ya, my umbrella got overturned in the wind”, her voice was husky and rough, probably due to a sore throat. I was tempted to ask her name but realized it wasn’t probably not a good time for introductions since the rain was heavy. I wanted to help her first.
“Waiting for somebody?”
“A taxi. Preferably, today!” she seemed irritated having waited there for sometime while there are hardly any other pedestrians. Most taxis that passed by are occupied.
“I don’t think you’ll get one this time and in this weather.”
“I’ll wait. Maybe, I’ll get lucky.”
“You are soaking wet and shivering. You’ll catch a cold if you stay here for too long”, a car whizzes past us spraying mud all over our shoes.
“What do you suggest I do?” she was frustrated at me, a stranger who seemed to be bugging her for no reason whatsoever.
Taking out my umbrella and spreading it over her head, I said, “You can have my umbrella but it will be of no use for you to stand here and wait. This rain isn’t stopping anytime soon.”
“Thank you for that very common knowledge. But, for how long will I wait here?”
she was palpably pissed at her plight.
“Where do you live?”
“Vikhroli”, she answered reluctantly, as if trying to make sense of me.
“Don’t you have someone who can pick you up?”
“I have a brother. But it will be at least an hour before he arrives.”
“You probably wouldn’t find a bus either because of the strike. So, why don’t you come to my apartment, it is nearby and dry up a little while your brother reaches there.”
She was visibly shocked to hear the proposition. She looked at me as if she was about to hit me. The rainy silence between us became tense, almost frighteningly for me.
“Thanks for the offer”
“What?” I said before it could get any weirder. I wasn’t amused at her stare. It was somewhat intimidating.
“I don’t know you”, she screamed in disgust. Thankfully, there were no other people around to hear her otherwise I would have been mob-lynched. Moral policing and sexual harassment of women is ubiquitous in India.
“Well, neither do I.”
“How do I know you are a good person? And even if you are, sometimes nice guys do not-so-nice-things.” She looked at me as if uncomfortable at the thought of even considering the idea of going to my place. My jaws dropped at her reaction.
“Wow I didn’t see that one coming. But do you really want to wait for God knows how long, and get soaked in the rain here until your brother arrives?”
“Honestly, I don’t. But I can’t go to your apartment.”
“For whatever it is worth, I live with my younger sister and you can count on me not harming you in front of her. I can assure you that.”
After a long conspicuous silence, she replied, “So, how, exactly, are we going there? On your cycle?” her tone changing instantly between the questions.
“I can survive some of the rain. But you are already swamped”, I unbuttoned my raincoat and held it open for her. She turned around gently slipping her arms into it. She smiled in surprised at my selfless gesture. Her hair puffed up in the wind and blows across my face. She smelled delicious.
“Thank you”, she smiled at me giving me the umbrella.
“Don’t thank me yet. We have to walk a few hundred meters.”
“So, when exactly did you decide to come along?” I asked her as I draged the cycle forward close to the sidewalk.
“I don’t really know. Maybe, when you told me you live with your younger sister.” She must have found it endearing that I lived with my sister, something that might have comforted her enough to accompany me.
“I could be lying too”, I joked. She returns a frowning look for a second and laughed it off. She was definitely confused at the rationality of her decision but stayed strong up front. I’d been trying hard to have a good look at her face but the blend of dusk and rain eluded my fancies.
“Do you often stop your cycle on rainy days to help strangers? I mean who does that.”
“No, I saw you while I went past here to the café and then while returning you were still there.” I felt a little ashamed to have followed her.
“What made you stop?”
“I couldn’t watch you suffer in the rain as I passed by”, I glanced at her with the corner of my eye. “Is that really your line”, she burst into a laughter. Her eyes were trained on the road. The reflection of raindrops from the vehicles formed a moustache over her lips, it brought a smile on my face. She looked funny, like a grumpy cat.
“So, how old is your sister?” she turned to ask.
“She’s twenty. She’s actually my cousin.”
“So, you were lying?”
“Well, not really. She is my sister if you know what I mean.”
“Ya, I guess I do. What do you do?”
“I am an engineering student, final year”
“Wow. You must be a nerd.”
“That is a big conception.”
“Hey, I heard they had hostels on the campus.”
“I did live in it for a year but Shreya came her for studying. So, I opted out to stay with her.”
“Oh, you seem like a good brother”, her face twisted into a wide smile, one that couldn’t portray one particular emotion, or at least not that I could decipher.
“What about you?”
“I am a consultant at TCS. So, I am probably a few years older “, she carefully noted. I just sent a smile.
We reached my apartment. I unlocked the door. A room, a kitchen, and a washroom, she scanned my modest living abode. The layers of paint had come out showing patches of concrete. Although I hardly knew her, I already felt embarrassed to have brought her to this place. I’d never felt so self-conscious recently.
“Where’s your cousin?”
“Must have gone out with her friends! I prefer her to be called my sister.”
My sister’s absence might have perhaps made her feel question my story. I latched the door and turned around to see her finding her staring at me. Her eyes bright and hypnotic, her cheeks pink and straws of hair hanging on either side of her pretty face. She dug her hands into her chest trembling with cold.
As I walked towards her, she tucked her hair behind her ears looking at me.
“Here, let me help you with the raincoat”, she slid the raincoat gently down her arms revealing her wet dress. I could see through her clothes. My heart beat shot through the roof. She looked captivating. A wild sensation engulfed me momentarily.
“Do you bring strangers home very often?” she asked me as if trying to solve the mystery that was myself as I went to the kitchen.
“No”, I replied while bringing her a glass of water. She gulped in all at a time and asked for more. She was really thirsty.
“Why don’t you help yourself with towels and dry up?” I asked her. She was puzzled at the idea of drying up while he was still standing in the room.
“Sorry, I’ll clear the room for you”, I apologized noticing her dismay. This had already been a very awkward conversation so far.
“What will I wear? My clothes are wet”, she shouted from inside the room shut by a curtain while I poured oil into a pan to cook dinner.
“You can help yourself with Shreya’s clothes if they fit you. They must be on the top left rack”, I replied.
“These seem to be too small for me. Yours may fit”, she sounded a bit embarrassed to have to suggest idea while I was amused.
“May I come in if it is okay with you”, I asked shyly, “You won’t find them easily.”
“You direct me, I’ll find them”, she insisted. I gave her a rundown of where the dresses were for over five minutes but she wasn’t able to find anything. Finally, she gave up, “Come in. And no peeking.”
“Shall I close my eyes?” I asked of her almost innocently, the next moment realising that that was exactly what she had instructed me to do seconds ago.
“Of course!” she said in a dismissive tone.
I entered the room while she stood on the opposite side of the shelves verbally helping me navigate towards it. I opened his eyes facing away from her. Sifting through the stack, I took out a track suit for her.
I turned around to give her the clothes when I found her wrapped in two white towels around her, down to her knees. I realised I had forgotten to shut his eyes.
I face twisted into a guilty smile but soon shrunk back as soon as she turns towards me.
“What?” she found my bright eyes staring at her. I immediately closed them.
“O come on, don’t pretend, atleast when you know I have seen you staring”, she pulled my clothes from my hands and showed me the door.
“I should probably step outside”, I came out but her image stayed with me, fair skin covered with white towels with long black shiny hairdo mounted on the top. It was too dramatic.
“They fit me just fine”, she came out of the room in a few minutes.
“…comfortable.” was all I could muster. I wanted to say ‘pretty’ but restrained muself. She had let her hair loose on her shoulders, a nice change from the formal hairdo which she had before. She looked like a female version of myself, or so I imagined.
“It smells good. What are you cooking?”
“Dinner. Shreya will be home anytime.”
“Do you always cook yourself?”
“Not always. Sometimes we order the restaurant. On weekends, we go out.”
“Let me see if you are any good at this.” Much to my surprise, she ran into the kitchen.
“I do fine. But you can really tell only if you taste it.”
“The smell is delicious. Who taught you cooking?”
“My mom. I liked to help her whenever I was home.”
“Where is your home, you know what I mean?”
“I am from the North.” Before she could ask me further about my family, I said, “You should wait until dinner. It won’t take much time.”
“I…” she sneezed loudly, “…have texted bhai this address. Let us see when he comes.”
“Did you have a bath or what?”
“Ya, a quick one.”
“And you see the result”, I almost scolded her.
“I’ll be fine by morning. By the way, I am Riya. What is your name Mr. Umbrella Man?”
We smiled at each other realizing that she had changed in my apartment, and he hadn’t even introducing each other.
“I am Nitin”, I walked close to her, “I am not the umbrella man, because he was a crook.”
“What are you referring to?”
“The story by Roald Dahl in which an old man fools people on the streets of London on rainy days by convincing them to buy his stolen umbrellas just to go and drink red wine with the money.”
“I never heard that one. But I’ll read it. What is your full name?” I felt foolish to have summarized the story when she hadn’t even heard of it.
“Nitin…Chopra. Actually, it has been long since anyone asked me that.” Her interest gave me an exciting jolt of nervous energy. We stood there quietly for a while exchanging awkward glances until I slowly leaned towards her, tucking her hair behind her ears and said, “I never thought someone would look so pretty in my tracks.”
“Didn’t Shreya ever had to try them?” she asked curiously. I liked that she remembered my sister’s name. “She has so many of her own that we never got to that situation. I am specially surprised that none of her dresses fit you.”
She gave me an angry frown. “I didn’t mean to say you are fat or something”, I apologetically raised his hands.
“I am not particularly slim, atleast not as much as her evidently. So, her clothes stuck to me a little but which was discomforting. Plus what’s with the apologetic tone.”
“I was, you know, a little worried with what happened inside.”
She gently pulled my chin up leaning in as my lips flinched staring at her eyes. My eyes look puzzled, I felt grossly uncomfortable.
“You have nothing to be worried about.”
She stole a glance of my warm brown eyes, they didn’t depict any emotion, and leaned further onto my lips. I was overwhelmed with an exotic feeling. In a few moments, I felt my lips open and we kissed.
She let herself out of my hold and smiled at me. I reciprocated and started rolling the chapattis. Their shapes were irregular, far from circular or anything like it. Seeing the maps of undiscovered nations in front of her, she burst into a sumptuous laughter looking at those weird-shaped pieces. She was infectious. I could not help smiling, I wanted to kiss her again.
“Here, let me help you out”, she snatched the roller from my hands pushing me aside. She shaped them perfectly. I was amazed at her swiftness.
“I didn’t take you to be a chef. Where did you learn that?”
“My mom taught me too. I love cooking.”
She rolled a few chapattis while I cooked them.
“How does it taste?” I asked with a nervous curiousity. She opened her mouth as if to throw up.
“Is it really that bad?” I shrugged in sadness.
“It is delicious. You are good, really good. What else can you cook?”
“You had me there”, I was relieved. “Other than regular meals not much, but we try new recipes sometimes. Maybe if I can learn a few tips from a seasoned chef such as yourself, I might add a few more recipes to my diet instead of the regular ones.”
“Don’t get your hopes up on that. I don’t work here. I live in Delhi.” I felt a tear grow in my heart, as if she had pierced right through it. She smiled and said, ‘ Don’t be sad. We had such a nice time.’
We ate the food. I went into the kitchen and slowly washed up the plates thinking about her.
“Tell me about Nitin Chopra. What do you like to eat?”
“I love chocolates and pastries. They are better than food. I can eat them all day long.”
“Wow that was very swift! But sorry to disappoint you.”
“Really? You are young.”
“What about you?”
Her phone rang. “It’s my brother Akash. I had come to meet him. He is waiting for me downstairs.”
“I’ll see you off”, I said. She seemed too eager not to answer my question he had asked earlier.
“I’ll swing by tomorrow to return this”, she said as we walked down the stairs. She sighed as she flipped her dark hair over her shoulder.
“It’s not so urgent. You can bring them at your convenience.”
I noticed a shiny black Mercedes parked outside the building. Her brother waved at us from the car. I was perplexed. She must be definitely wealthy, he thought. I was further embarrassed to have invited her into my small rented apartment where there was hardly a drawing room.
“You are sweet, Nitin,” Riya hugged me, and kissed softly on my cheeks and said, “Thank you so much for helping me out.” The smell of her hair hit me like a knife in the chest while I held my breath. She chuckled as she pulled back. I wanted to hold on to her and secretly hoped, she did too.
“You take care”, it was all I had to offer in response. Her touch had frozen me instantaneously. It was unexpected. It was not at all comfortable. The car’s honking brought me back.
They drove away waving a goodbye. I walked up to my apartment pondering over the wonderful encounter I had with this extraordinary lady, unable to wipe the smile off my face.
A day later, I was searching my shelf for the tracks when I realised they were in Delhi. My heart pounded as I thought of her.